Dyspraxia and I

When difference isn’t obvious

by Lee Moore
Neighbourhood Support Team Inspector
Avon & Somerset Police

In most circumstances, difference is plain to see… a clear injury, an obvious condition, the colour of someone’s skin. Occasionally though it is hidden – there doesn’t seem anything particularly different about that person. An example of this is Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), commonly known as dyspraxia.

My work colleagues know me from my many years in Avon & Somerset Police, however one thing people may not know about me is that I have dyspraxia.

So, what is it, and how does it affect me?

Dyspraxia is a neurological disorder that affects your movement and coordination. This results in problems with balance and difficulties with gross and fine motor skills. (More of that later!) Thankfully it doesn’t affect your intelligence, otherwise I would be really up the creek, but it does make daily life more difficult. It affects your coordination skills, such as tasks requiring balance, playing sports or learning to drive a car – and your fine motor skills, such as writing and using small objects. Dyspraxia can also affect speech. It’s a lifelong condition and is usually classed a disability.

The causes of dyspraxia are not really clear. It is thought to be caused by disruption to the way in which messages from the brain are transmitted around the body and something to do with certain neurons that transmit messages not developing properly. As is typical with neurodivergent conditions, I didn’t know I had it until well into my 40s, nearly 20 years into my policing service! In fact my story is similar to others with neurodivergent conditions: I was researching dyslexia as it was thought my son was dyslexic, and then I stumbled (get it?) across dyspraxia. I went through each symptom and thought “That’s me to a T” (the light bulb moment!) And to cut a very long story short, I approached A&S Police who were brilliant – they got me tested and I was diagnosed, which put all my past issues into context.

Well – I say I didn’t know before I was diagnosed, but I always suspected I was different. I used to love sport but I was terrible at it, so uncoordinated… I couldn’t play tennis, I couldn’t (and still can’t) hit a golf ball. I was not just rubbish – it was worse than that, I was awful… I did sometimes play football for the school (I wasn’t an automatic pick!) and scored one of the best goals ever, my mates still talk about it now – right foot volley from the edge of the box, top corner, the keeper never moved… Unfortunately it was our keeper. It was the best own goal and the worst clearance you’ve ever seen, all in one go! I remember doing athletics and everyone laughing at how I ran (an electric eel in a spin dryer as one wag described it). I was called lots of names, ‘rubber man’ being one of the kinder ones, but I battled through and tried my hardest not to let it bother me – although sometimes it did.

Luckily I was quite popular – one of my strengths for whatever reason with this condition is I have empathy with people – I understand them and I’m always out for the underdog. I supported my friends and always gave advice (some of it unwanted!) To deal with the tough times and some of the cruel jibes, I often used humour, and those that know me well know I still try and do that. I have never been able to do ‘complicated’, my brain struggles to process stuff sometimes, and certainly when there’s too much stuff. Grey is not a colour I’m comfortable with, I do black and white – this can mean I’m quiet in meetings for instance whilst I work things out, and then I can seem forthright as I get a little frustrated with the ‘noise’ and just want to get to the point! Some people think I’m quiet, hard to read, stand-offish, even shy – but all I’m doing is thinking, processing, working it all out and preparing what to say… I’m also really clumsy and I do get very tired (I will explain that one later!)

I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong, fair and just, and whilst I get frustrated with myself sometimes I stay determined, some say to the point of being stubborn. That is why I ended up in the police service: wanting to help, a sense of justice, doing the right thing and having a structure all appealed to me. (Lack of structure and being disorganised are traits of someone with dyspraxia – I have elements of these but I am aware of it now so work really hard to try and keep on top of things.) There are also the unwanted travel companions that have followed me throughout as a result – namely low self-esteem, particularly when others seem to do things so easily when I struggle – anxiety, frustration and occasionally depression. However since my diagnosis, I now understand why I sometimes feel this way. I still have the occasional bad day but I am able to manage a lot better with medication and my support networks: family, friends, gym and Netflix (thank God for Tiger King and Mrs. Maisel during lockdown!)

“You’re not dynamic, too quiet, not interested… Actually you are none of those things, you may be tired but you are processing, thinking and you’ll only add value when it is necessary.”

All of these things affected me throughout my whole career, without me quite knowing why… I got to Inspector, had a couple of setbacks and then it became a bit of a struggle… Sometimes I thought I was stupid, sometimes that I couldn’t cope, and other times “Why do others get this when I don’t” – it all very frustrating and occasionally upsetting without quite knowing why.

Since diagnosis I have been able to put everything into perspective and put mechanisms in place to deal with some of my symptoms. One of the biggest problems is tiredness: A study has said that someone with dyspraxia uses 10 times more energy to carry out the simplest task than a non-dyspraxic person – talking, reading, writing, hitting that golf ball… I mentioned earlier it’s to do with the neurons and transmitters in the body passing messages around the nervous system – mine are jumbled up and need processing before I carry out the task. It just doesn’t happen naturally, and this takes more energy and extra split seconds of time. My batteries can be running out 10 times quicker which makes me very tired sometimes, affecting my demeanour and sometimes my confidence, often when it is most needed. I can cope now though – I know when to step out of situations, I drink loads of water to stay hydrated and snack throughout the day to keep my energy levels up.

A&S Police has made great strides in dealing with disability and issues of difference, which is brilliant… But that hasn’t always been the case! The problem with a condition that can affect your energy levels, your demeanour, how you process information and present in meetings for instance, can lead to negative perceptions about you if it is not understood. You’re not dynamic, too quiet, not interested… Actually you are none of those things, you may be tired but you are processing, thinking and you’ll only add value when it is necessary. I, like some of my neurodivergent colleagues, have had the classic “you’re not Chief Inspector material” when applying for promotion – in fact, not long after my diagnosis I was told by someone that I would need to “grow a different head” to get promoted. Now try action planning that?!

I have some other stories from the past that would make your toes curl but as said, that is in the past… My last few years have been pretty good – there is a much better understanding, we no longer pay lip service to disability issues and we take a proactive and positive approach to difference. Working in the A&S Neighbourhood Directorate has been great, and I highly recommend it – fascinating work and a quality Senior Leadership Team.

So what’s the point of me banging on? Well, it’s simple really: just understand that sometimes, what you see on the outside, good and bad, isn’t the whole story. Just have an understanding of what impact neurodivergent conditions such as dyspraxia can have on an individual and the struggles they may bring.

And, most importantly: focus on strengths. The positive skills and benefits anyone with difference can bring: the empathy, the determination, the ability to get to the issue, the lack of ‘grey’ that leads to good decision making.

Let’s embrace our values and value our staff – and let’s focus on what people can do, not what they can’t. (Though I still can’t hit that bloody golf ball!) ∎

This blog was originally published on the Avon & Somerset Police intranet for World Values Day – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

Updated police autism guide released

The National Autistic Society has released the latest version of their guide for police officers and staff, updated September 2020. The document contains simple ‘do’s and dont’s’ for dealing with autistic suspects, victims of crime and witnesses, and examples of best practice.

The NPAA would like to extend our thanks to the NAS for providing the opportunity for us to contribute to this important piece of work, which will assist in our aim of training all frontline police officers in recognising and working with autism.

Click on the image to link to a free PDF download (email address required). Click here for the NAS online shop.

Why language matters

by Adam O’Loughlin
Head of Policy & Service Delivery | National Police Autism Association

Adam, do you prefer being referred to as being autistic or as having autism? The truth is that I’m equally unoffended by either, but if I had to choose, I would tell you that in my particular case, autistic is something I am, rather than autism being something I have. And it’s fair to say that to a great many people, how we talk about neurodiversity and the language we use really matters.

While ‘person-first’ language was long considered the most progressive way to talk about neurodiversity and disability, in recent years in the autistic and the wider disabled community, ‘identity-first’ language has become more prominent. These days many neurodiverse people see their neurology as an integral part of who they are – not a separate or negative add-on – and believe neurodiversity-positive language promotes equality and acceptance. Identity-first language tells society that we should be respected along with our differences, not in spite of them.

We should, of course, respect the right of everyone to choose the language that suits them and as a front line emergency service, we have to find a way to navigate the language around neurodiversity which is respectful to everyone. And that means that where possible, I believe we should use identity-first language. Here are the reasons why:

  • Language shapes attitudes. On far too many occasions I’ve seen language used that makes me cringe and is borderline offensive. We must stop saying things like ‘suffers from’ or ‘living with’ autism or other neurodiverse conditions, which clearly disrespect the people to whom they refer.
  • This change has been led by people with disabilities, and you may have heard the expression ‘nothing about us without us’ before. For far too long, the neurodiverse community in particular has had to put up with pejorative language being imposed upon them by people who aren’t affected by it. If this is what our communities are telling us, we should listen.

I also believe we need to get away from using functioning labels, as the overriding consensus is that they do far more harm than good. I’ll use autism as a good example of this. Realistically, there is no such disparity as simple as high or low functioning autism. Autism is a spectrum and we all function highly in some aspects and less well in others. Functioning in any one area can even fluctuate day-to-day depending on environment, accommodations and other factors. For example, an autistic person may perform a highly specialised task to an incredibly high standard when in a suitable environment, but be completely unable to perform the same task in an open-plan office surrounded by noise, activity and bright lights. They may instead appear surprisingly ‘low-functioning’.

Labelling a person as low-functioning dismisses their abilities, and labelling them as high-functioning dismisses their struggles. ‘Low functioning’ implies that the autistic life is a tragedy and a burden, and ‘high functioning’ is often mistaken to mean having savant abilities or to be only mildly or temporarily autistic. This is a vastly over-simplified and detrimental understanding of autistic people.

So please, try not to use functioning labels if you can. ∎

This blog was originally published on the Avon & Somerset Police intranet